Escape from Canada


So, it's Saturday, February 15 at noon, and until yesterday, my itinerary was to be as follows:

  1. Friday evening: head to downtown Toronto on GO Transit and stay overnight at the Royal York Hotel.
  2. Saturday morning, head over to Union Station around 7:30 a.m. to board VIA/Amtrak's Maple Leaf, departing at 8:20
  3. Saturday morning, 10:20 a.m. depart on train from Niagara Falls, Ontario, cross the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge, and then disembark at Niagara Falls, NY to clear custom's check with the US Border Patrol. Assuming all goes well, re-board the train and depart at 12:17 p.m. for New York City and, from there, to Boston.

Then this happened.

I had been looking forward to this weekend train trip to Boston for a while, now, so you might think that I'd be frustrated at the protesters blockading the CN tracks near Belleville for disrupting my vacation. I am frustrated, but not at them. Here are some thoughts on yesterday's clusterfork.

If Canadian National wanted people not to panic, they should have, you know, not panicked. If they wanted to provoke a crisis by overreacting to a blockade by shutting down half a country's rail service, well, the responsibility lies with them, and it frankly makes them look unprofessional. Similarly, I didn't get notice that I was going to have to find other arrangements to get from Toronto Union Station to Niagara Falls, New York, until about 2 p.m. the afternoon before the trip -- far too late to cancel my hotel stay in Toronto. I was super fortunate to figure out that alternatives existed, in the form of Megabus and GO Transit, but I know others weren't so lucky. Where the hell is the communication? This disruption still hasn't been posted to the relevant Amtrak websites. Why aren't shuttle buses even being considered for those who already have tickets?

And, speaking of alternative arrangements, the fact that GO Transit is still running trains is super fishy to me. Sure, Metrolinx owns a lot of its own rails, but the Kitchener GO train operates over CN tracks and it was able to operate last night with no problem. The VIA/Amtrak Maple Leaf may be down from Toronto to Niagara Falls, New York, but the three Saturday GO Trains over the same route between Toronto and Niagara Falls, Ontario are still running. I can see their platform from where I am now, and they travel over half of their journey on CN track. If they can run to Niagara Falls, why can't VIA? Or, for that matter, why can't VIA keep operating to Windsor, Sarnia, or Winnipeg? So, what really is the basis for CN and VIA's decision to suspend service?

The thing that strikes me most, however, is that CN and other critics of the blockades are saying that CN's shutdown risks costing the Canadian economy over $300 million as well as bringing about possible shortages of critical goods to Canadian cities. Hang on a minute. You're telling me that Canadian National's rail network is so fragile that a single blockade is enough to cause that much damage and hardship within days? Forget about a blockade, what happens if there's a derailment? What the hell has CN been doing with all our tax dollars? It strikes me that all of those rail abandonments were somewhat short sighted.

I know that the disruptions are a pain, but the situation with the Wet'suwet'en is very complicated and easily overlooked. And this is how civil disobedience works. If you are unable to gain justice through the rule of law, this legitimate form of protest works by making people uncomfortable, and without that discomfort, nothing will change. The blockaders may still end up being arrested, but for those who have seen their pain ignored for years on end, who have received only lip-service, if that -- what other recourse do they have?

As it happens, Niagara Falls, New York's Amtrak station is an interesting structure that's grafted onto the historic Custom House. Near here, thousands of fleeing slaves crossed the Niagara River on the Underground Railroad for freedom in Canada and, not coincidentally, a museum commemorating their experience has been set up within the Custom House. I paid $10 and spent a half-hour inside taking in the exhibit as I waited on the train. And the photograph below strikes me as relevant to what's going on here. This wall of photos extends the Underground Railroad exhibit to cover other civil rights actions, including Martin Luther King, LGTBQ protests, the Women's March of 2017, and the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. "Freedom is never given, it is won."

It's fair to agree or disagree with the protesters' aims, but we should ourselves take notes. This is what you have to do if, say, a leader refuses to accept an election result, suppresses voters, calls on foreign nationals to announce investigations on political rivals, and otherwise subvert the will of the people, and legal recourses run out. We may find this protest inconvenient -- which is the point -- but it is a legitimate tool to keep democracy alive.


Before you ask, I made it. Amtrak adjusted my ticket to let me board at Niagara Falls, New York, and I boarded the 7 a.m. Megabus to Niagara Falls, Ontario. From there, I paid a taxi driver a $40 flat fee to take me across the Rainbow Bridge. No waiting at the border. I got to Niagara Falls, NY's Amtrak station over an hour before the Maple Leaf would have arrived.

On an unrelated issue, can I just say that one crazy thing about our border crossings is that pedestrians are not allowed to cross the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge? This is the road and rail bridge the trains go over, and Google Maps shows that the walking trip between the train stations on both sides of the river is just eleven minutes. But, no, pedestrian access along this bridge was curtailed after the 9-11 attacks, and I would have had to schlep it to the Rainbow Bridge if I went across on foot. The Whirlpool Rapids bridge is also Nexus only and, although I had my Nexus card, my cab driver did not, so we drove over the Rainbow Bridge instead. I'm grateful for his service, but it's still a shame. I would have liked to cross the border on foot.

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